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image shows a modern keboard
Photo courtesy of Ellen Terrell.

“There’ll always be a Q-W-E-R-T-Y.”

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A January 1952 newspaper article ended with what seems to be, a prophetic statement:

“There’ll always be a Q-W-E-R-T-Y.”

One of my favorite posts I’ve written is the one about the typewriter, and in it, I mentioned the QWERTY keyboard but didn’t dwell on it. Because typewriters are a fun topic, I thought the 150th anniversary of the QWERTY keyboard was a good time to revisit the topic.

The QWERTY keyboard is something many people in the U.S. are familiar with, and its history goes back to the typewriter designed by Christopher Latham Sholes and popularized by the Remington model. The key layout was designed to ensure typists could type at an efficient clip, while, at the same time, not making the layout too awkward to use. There were alternative layouts from other companies, but the Remington’s popularity helped ensure that the QWERTY arrangement spread. The eight-fingered method taught to aspiring typists, and seen in early typewriter manuals, used the QWERTY arrangement.

The quest for a better layout didn’t stop. In May 1936, patent 2,040,248 was issued to William Dealey and August Dvorak, and the layout had the letters PYFGC on the top line. The stated objective:

“(1) the provision of a scientific plan of arranging the keys which will decrease the possibility of typewriting errors, (2) facilitating increase of operating speed by eliminating awkward sequences, (3) assisting increase of speed because of fewer errors, (4) lessening the fatigue of the typist, because of fewer interruptions due to errors, because of better arrangement of the keys for typing the sequences most frequently used, and the rhythmical flow of typing induced thereby, and because of more evenly distributed labor for the individual fingers and the two hands.”

The rest of the patent included a lot of details illustrating how this system was more efficient, such as a table on “Relative frequencies of common digraphs arranged to reveal probable degrees of interference arising from each tentative key location.” Much of the patent supports the importance of speed and rhythm and says: “… that the automatic rhythm of the operator, passing from one key to another in a continuous flow of word-wholes and phrase-wholes, best fits the mechanical rhythm of the typewriter. It was clear that this wasn’t intended to be a wholesale redesign of the typewriter:

“… an arrangement of the keys which will require no change in the typewriter mechanism or in the relative spacing and position of all the keys of the keyboard considered as a whole, and which can be readily effected upon any standard typewriter now made by the simple interchanging of type and key cards or labels.”

side by side of diagrams of the QWERTY layout and the proposed layout with the relative frequencies of diagraphs stroked by awkward hurdles and reaches with below each are chart of the numbers of the Left and and Right hand reaches and hurdles
Tables 2 and 3 from Patent 2,040,248, May 1936.

This layout favored right-handed typists and English language usage, but the patent does say: “For left-handed persons it may be preferable to reverse the keyboard, but this is to be understood as within the limits of our invention. Furthermore, for languages other than English the position of the particular letters will be widely varied, but arranged according to the principles which we have explained, it will still be found most suitable for the particular language involved.”

illustration of both keyboard the top is the proposed new design the bottom is the QWERTY
Lt. Commander Dvorak’s new keyboard (top) is compared to the traditional keyboard. Dickenson County Herald, 28 Oct. 1943.

Dvorak spent many years trying to convince people his design was best, and during World War II he got an opportunity. By then a Commander in the Navy, Dvorak was the efficiency expert tasked with looking for ways of speeding up the Navy’s production, and thought his keyboard was one solution. The Navy tested the keyboard and after some training, it was reported that production increased by about 74%. Even with that, it still was not generally used.  Another opportunity presented itself in January 1956, when the GSA announced an experiment to determine if this keyboard was the future of U.S. government typewriters. Just a few months later they decided to stick with QWERTY.

two old keyboards one on the top is larger with function keys to the left
IBM keyboards, Bernard Gotfryd, photographer

Lots of people have strong feelings about the QWERTY layout, and once the computer made its appearance, many thought, this would be an opportunity to introduce a new keyboard.  QWERTY held on, though new keys including Escape, Control, Alt, Insert, Home, PgUp, PgDn, End, all the F keys, as well as the number pad, borrowed from the calculator, were introduced. QWERTY didn’t stop there, because even smart phones have a QWERTY keyboard. Maybe voice-to-text will spell the end for QWERTY. Maybe.

If you are interested in the history of the typewriter (and by extension computers) you can read the previous post, but we also have a guide — History of the Office and Office Equipment: A Resource Guide – with a lot more resources. If you want to read more on Dvorak’s thoughts on efficient typing, Dvorak even wrote a few books including Typewriting Behavior; Psychology Applied to Teaching and Learning Typewriting and Scientific Typing.

image show a screenshot of a smartphone keyboard with QWERTY typed into the note field
Photo courtesy of Ellen Terrell.

Note: A 2013 Smithsonian Magazine article provide a bit more to the story of the QWERTY story.

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Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this blog post.

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